In The Art of Becoming Yourself, Chad Hanson discussed the hard-to-measure cultural value of a university education. I was particularly struck by his statement:
Educators spend a good deal of energy testing critical-thinking ability and, frankly, are frustrated with the results. One reason we have difficulty producing critical thinking is that we separate thinking from thinkers. We treat critical thinking as if it were a free-floating ability when, in fact, it is a function of oneself or one’s identity. Critical thinking is a way of positioning oneself toward a problem. For critical thinking to take place, students must first come to think of themselves as people who are willing to take a critical stance in relation to an issue.
This resonated with me because I’m trying to teach the bioengineering students in my circuits courses to “think like engineers“, but I had not thought of the problem in quite the way that Dr. Hanson put it. My goal is not to have students “take a critical stance”, but to be able to solve problems that they have never seen before.
I’m really trying to make the students see themselves as engineers, rather than as students—to have them think of themselves as people who can look at a problem and decompose it into solvable subproblems, as people who are willing to explore possibilities without knowing that there is a correct answer in the back of the book, and as people who can design solutions.
I want them to think “let me look on the data sheet” and “let me measure that and see”, rather than asking “is this right?”
I want them to look at a breadboard that isn’t working, and start by checking each wire to see if it is consistent with the schematic, rather than just calling the TA or me over for help (80% of the debugging I’ve done for students is pointing out that their wiring doesn’t match their schematic).
I want them to draw their own schematics, checking to make sure they know what each wire and component is for, not just copying and pasting someone else’s. I want them to check their schematics to be sure they haven’t shorted power and ground, and that every input and output is appropriately wired, not left dangling.
I want them to do quick sanity checks on every calculation or design decision, asking “is that consistent with what we know already?” and “are the units right?”
They’re all capable of doing these things, when told to, but they have not yet changed themselves to the point where they tell themselves these things without being nudged.
If they forget in a year how to compute the corner frequency of an RC filter, I’ll be only mildly disappointed—if they need it, they can look it up or rederive it in a few minutes. But if they forget that they can rederive formulas from a few simple principles, rather than having to memorize or look up solutions to every possible problem, I will have failed. If they forget or don’t learn how to decompose problems into subproblems, or how to write a design report that can be understood by people who’ve not read any prior problem statement, then I will have failed. If they forget to look at datasheets or to do consistency checks on their own work and that of their colleagues, I will have failed.
Dr. Hanson quotes Alexander Astin:
In his classic What Matters in College?, he concludes, “The student’s peer group is the single most potent source of influence on growth and development during the undergraduate years.” As educators, we assume that students enroll in our classes for the sake of the learning outcomes listed on our syllabi. The truth is that learning outcomes are actually a small part of the endeavor. The postsecondary ritual is a large and life-changing experience.
That suggests to me that it will take the students helping each other to make the change to thinking like engineers. I can give them exercises and labs in which engineering thinking is valuable, and I can give them questions to ask themselves, but it may take the students asking each other these questions for the change in their ways of thinking to become part of who they are.